How ‘SNL’s’ Pat Inspired Abby McEnany’s ‘Work in Progress’

Danielle Turchiano

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Just as in Las Vegas, everything Abby McEnany used to say in her one-woman iO Theater show “Work in Progress” was supposed to stay in that location.

When the writer, producer and actor was creating that project to live on stage, she recalls feeling as if she “just needed it to be a safe space and to be small.” But that autobiographical show was later turned into a pilot that premiered at Sundance and eventually a half-hour comedy series airing on Showtime, and suddenly her most vulnerable and honest emotions and experiences had a much larger audience.

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Some of these experiences included dating a trans man whom she at first mistook for a lesbian woman, feeling like her life was ruined by Julia Sweeney’s “Saturday Night Live” character Pat and living with OCD and depression.

“When I was writing those stories it was literally that question of, ‘What am I comfortable sharing?’ A lot of it was about self protection, but also you need to respect the people in your life,” says McEnany.

This balance became essential in having an open and honest dialogue around Pat — both what the character was intended to be when Sweeney created her at the Groundlings and what she became once she was let loose on the masses through “SNL.”

McEnany admits that when she watched the character on late-night TV, she “was laughing along with the rest of the world.” But as the androgynous character became popular, “other people took it as a weapon against me.” Not knowing how Pat identified and with a theme song that began “A lot of people ask, ‘What’s that?,’” the character was often the butt of jokes for not conforming to gender stereotypes.

“You’re never called ‘Pat’ in a nice way,” McEnany notes.

McEnany’s “Work in Progress” character self-identifies as a “fat, queer dyke” and has deep anxiety about being misgendered. In the pilot episode she tells her new romantic interest Chris (Theo Germaine) about how she feels Pat ruined her life. Sweeney happens to be at the same restaurant as the budding new couple, and he orchestrates a conversation between the two women that ends up turning into a season-long friendship.

“I still am overwhelmed by her absolute openness,” McEnany says of Sweeney. “She’s never been like, ‘Oh I don’t feel comfortable.’ She never was like, ‘I don’t want your character to say this about me.’”

McEnany says that it is certainly not easy to mine all of these issues for television, but she considers doing so “very powerful” for herself and for an audience that may otherwise not see themselves reflected on screen.

“I just want to do it the right way,” she says. “Hopefully as human beings we’re open to learn and grow and be introduced to new ways of thinking and new kinds of folks. I try to be as honest and truthful and work with as much integrity as I can. I know failure, but I’d rather be true to myself and continue struggling, as opposed to lying and becoming somebody I’m not.”

Abby McEnany’s Inspirations:

Writers’ room style: “Quiet is really important to me, and an uncluttered workspace.”
Favorite writers’ room snack: “I was always hoping they would put out stuff that I really hated [so I wouldn’t be tempted].”
Mood music: “When I’m editing I can have music, but generally nothing with lyrics — although I listen to ‘Godspell’ a lot.”
How she breaks writer’s block: “Doing something totally different and letting it move around your brain.”

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